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The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

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The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers

3/5 (195 ratings)
238 pages
4 hours
Aug 14, 2018


A new edition of the first book by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first "Internet," which revolutionized the nineteenth century even more than the Internet has the twentieth and twenty first.

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts that of the Internet in numerous ways.
Aug 14, 2018

About the author

Tom Standage is technology editor of The Economist and author of several highly acclaimed books, including The Victorian Internet, The Mechanical Turk and The Neptune File.

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The Victorian Internet - Tom Standage


To Dr. K


Foreword to the New Edition


1.The Mother of All Networks

2.Strange, Fierce Fire

3.Electric Skeptics

4.The Thrill Electric

5.Wiring the World

6.Steam-Powered Messages

7.Codes, Hackers, and Cheats

8.Love over the Wires

9.War and Peace in the Global Village

10.Information Overload

11.Decline and Fall

12.The Legacy of the Telegraph






A note on the Author

Praise for The Victorian Internet

Also available from Tom Standage


I HAVE THREE COPIES of The Victorian Internet. The first is an uncorrected advance copy, the second is a hardcover version, and the third is the 2007 paperback edition, with an afterword by author Tom Standage. I found my handwritten note in the uncorrected copy, dated 1998. It reads:

This brief, intense and insightful account of the development of the telegraph itself kept me fixated from the first to last page. It seems to be thoroughly researched and enjoyably chronicled. The parallels with the Internet illustrate the ease with which our modern- day hubris makes itself embarrassingly visible. Claims for the virtues of the Internet are echoes of the same claims made for telegraphy, telephony, radio, and television.

One simply must read it to put the Internet into perspective. And, besides, it is filled with truly amusing anecdotes of the main actors and occasional screwballs of the era.

It is now 2013 and fifteen years have elapsed since Tom wrote his first version. Even his 2007 afterword can use some updating after only six years. He is quite correct to observe that wirelessness is reasserting itself as mobile phones, pads, or tablets occupy a place once adorned mostly by desk and laptop computers. Perhaps even more prophetic, we are entering a period in which virtually any appliance, no matter how large or small, may become part of the vast and connected world of the Internet. The phrase ‘‘Internet of things’’ has become popular. At Google, there are self-driving cars that take advantage of wireless connectivity to vast quantities of information: all the cars are learning from each other and from information gathered globally from ‘‘crowds’’ of users contributing geographically indexed information. Google Glass, a wearable device, places computing power and sensory awareness associated with the wearer. The computer is sharing the visual and auditory ‘‘sensorium’’ with us and helping us understand where we are, what is around us, and what might be of interest to us.

Thanks to improvements in microelectronics, battery-powered devices, including a wide range of sensors and actuators, are becoming part of a global artificial fabric of information. Where we once turned to books, other print publications, and even television and radio, we now turn to the Net to search for information, to be alerted to information of interest, to communicate with known and unknown colleagues, to share our experiences, discoveries, and knowledge. We entertain and we are entertained through the fabric of this system. We learn, teach, transact, produce, consume, plan, execute, and collaborate online.

Some of these phenomena might have been predictable as we experienced the effects of rapid delivery of information through the telegraph system. When it was expanded through intercontinental cables and eventually radio, one could try to imagine the effect of the stunningly brief delay for disseminating important information. Our ability to make such predictions is limited in some ways by our ability to imagine the scale and scope of systems of this kind. Time and space are not constraints on the Internet, unlike broadcast radio and television where time is limited or in print publications where space is equally at a premium. The users of the system determine how much time they are willing to spend exploring the vastness of the information that has been and continues to be produced.

There is a dark side that cannot be ignored. Our dependence on digital technology and digitized information also creates vulnerability. Our devices may ingest digital viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and other malware. Our daily lives may be disrupted. Our critical infrastructure damaged or disabled. We have created our own liabilities to go along with the extraordinary utility of our connected universe. We are thus reminded that we have challenges to overcome as privacy is eroded, reliability is undermined, integrity is compromised, and the system turns our dependence into hazard. There is a story by E. M. Forster titled ‘‘The Machine Stops,’’ written in 1909.* A society dependent on the Machine is suddenly thrown into turmoil as the sustaining benefits of the Machine abruptly halt.

Tom’s excellent work reminds us again and again that our optimism and enthusiasm must be leavened by thoughtful perspective. And this his enduring story of the telegraph provides, at least as I read it.

Vinton Cerf

April 2013

* Forster, E. M. ‘‘The Machine Stops.’’ The Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909.


IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY there were no televisions, airplanes, computers, or spacecraft; nor were there antibiotics, credit cards, microwave ovens, compact discs, or mobile phones.

There was, however, an Internet.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, a new communications technology was developed that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances, in effect shrinking the world faster and further than ever before. A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates and dismissed by the skeptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes toward everything from news gathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself.

Does all this sound familiar?

Today the Internet is often described as an information superhighway; its nineteenth-century precursor, the electric telegraph, was dubbed the ‘‘highway of thought.’’ Modern computers exchange bits and bytes along network cables; telegraph messages were spelled out in the dots and dashes of Morse code and sent along wires by human operators. The equipment may have been different, but the telegraph’s impact on the lives of its users was strikingly similar.

The telegraph unleashed the greatest revolution in communications since the development of the printing press. Modern Internet users are in many ways the heirs of the telegraphic tradition, which means that today we are in a unique position to understand the telegraph. And the telegraph, in turn, can give us a fascinating perspective on the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of the Internet.

The rise and fall of the telegraph is a tale of scientific discovery, technological cunning, personal rivalry, and cutthroat competition. It is also a parable about how we react to new technologies: For some people, they tap a deep vein of optimism, while others find in them new ways to commit crime, initiate romance, or make a fast buck— age-old human tendencies that are all too often blamed on the technologies themselves.

This is the story of the oddballs, eccentrics, and visionaries who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they constructed—a network that was, in effect, the Victorian Internet.




telegraph, n.—a system of or instrument for sending messages or information to a distant place;

v.—to signal (from French TÉLÉGRAPHE)

ON AN APRIL DAY in 1746 at the grand convent of the Carthusians in Paris, about two hundred monks arranged themselves in a long, snaking line. Each monk held one end of a twenty-five-foot iron wire in each hand, connecting him to his neighbor on either side. Together, the monks and their connecting wires formed a line over a mile long.

Once the line was complete, the abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, a noted French scientist, took a primitive electrical battery and, without warning, connected it to the line of monks—giving all of them a powerful electric shock.

Nollet did not go around zapping monks with static electricity for fun; his experiment had a serious scientific objective. Like many scientists of the time, he was measuring the properties of electricity to find out how far it could be transmitted along wires and how fast it traveled. The simultaneous exclamations and contortions of a mile-long line of monks revealed that electricity could be transmitted over a great distance; and as far as Nollet could tell, it covered that distance instantly.

This was a big deal.

It suggested that in theory, it ought to be possible to harness electricity to build a signaling device capable of sending messages over great distances incomparably faster than a human messenger could carry them.

At the time, sending a message to someone a hundred miles away took the best part of a day—the time it took a messenger traveling on horseback to cover the distance. This unavoidable delay had remained constant for thousands of years; it was as much a fact of life for George Washington as it was for Henry VIII, Charlemagne, and Julius Caesar.

As a result, the pace of life was slow. Rulers dispatched armies to distant lands and waited months for news of victory or defeat; ships sailed over the horizon on epic voyages, and those on board were not seen or heard from again for years. News of an event spread outward in a slowly growing circle, like a ripple in a pond, whose edge moved no faster than a galloping horse or a swift-sailing ship.

To transmit information any more quickly, something that moved faster than a horse or a ship was clearly required. Sound, which travels at a speed of about twelve miles per minute, is one means of speedier communication. If a church bell strikes one o’clock, a monk standing in a field half a mile away knows what time it is about two seconds later. A horse-borne messenger, in contrast, setting out from the church precisely on the hour to deliver the message ‘‘It is one o’clock,’’ would take a couple of minutes to cover the same distance.

Light also offers an expeditious way to communicate. If the monk has keen eyesight and the air is clear, he may be able to make out the hands of the church clock. And since light (which travels at nearly 200,000 miles per second) covers short distances almost instantly, the information that it is a particular time of day effectively travels from the clock face to the monk in what seems to be no time at all.

Now experiments by Nollet and others showed that electricity also seemed capable of traveling great distances instantaneously. Unlike light, electricity could be transmitted along wires and around corners; a line of sight from one place to another was not needed. This meant that if an electric shock was administered at one o’clock via a half-mile-long wire running from the church to a distant monk, he would know exactly what time it was, even if he was underground or indoors or otherwise out of sight of the clock tower. Electricity held out the promise of high- speed signaling from one place to another, at any time of day.

But the advantage of a horse-borne message was that it could say anything at all; instead of saying ‘‘It is one o’clock,’’ it could just as easily say ‘‘Come to lunch’’ or ‘‘Happy birthday.’’ An electrical pulse, on the other hand, was like the strike of a church bell, the simplest of all possible signals. What was needed was a way to transmit a complicated message using simple signals. But how could it be done?

SINCE THE LATE sixteenth century there had been persistent rumors across Europe of a magical device that allowed people many miles apart to spell out messages to each other letter by letter. There was no truth in these tales, but by Nollet’s time the stories had acquired the status of what might today be called an urban myth. Nobody had actually seen one of these devices, which relied on magical ‘‘sympathetic’’ needles that could somehow influence each other over great distances, but they were widely believed to exist. Cardinal Richelieu, for example, the ruthless and widely feared first minister of France, was thought to have a set because he always seemed so well informed about goings-on in distant places. (Then again, he was also thought to be the owner of a magical all-seeing eye.)

Perhaps the best-known description of the sympathetic needles was published by Famianus Strada, a learned Italian who provided a detailed explanation in his book Prolusiones Academicae, published in 1617. He wrote of ‘‘a species of lodestone which possesses such virtue, that if two needles be touched with it, and then balanced on separate pivots, and the one turned in a particular direction, the other will sympathetically move parallel to it.’’ Each needle, he explained, was to be mounted in the center of a dial, with the letters of the alphabet written around its edge. Turning one of the needles to point to the letter ‘‘A’’ on its dial would then supposedly cause the other sympathetic needle to indicate the same letter. And this was all said to work no matter how far apart the two needles were. By indicating several letters in succession, a message could then be sent from one place to another.

‘‘Hither and thither turn the style and touch the letters, now this one, and now that,’’ wrote Strada. ‘‘Wonderful to relate, the far-distant friend sees the voluble iron tremble without the touch of any person, and run now hither, now thither: he bends over it, and marks the teaching of the rod. When he sees the rod stand still, he, in his turn, if he thinks there is anything to be answered, in like manner, by touching the various letters, writes it back to his friend.’’

The story of the needles was based on a germ of truth: There are indeed naturally occurring minerals, known as lodestones, which can be used to magnetize needles and other metallic objects. And if two magnets are placed on pivots very close together, moving one will indeed cause the other to move in response, as a result of the interaction of their magnetic fields. But it is not the case that the two magnets will always remain parallel, and the effect is only noticeable when they are right next to each other. The kind of needles described by Strada, which could interact over great distances, simply did not exist.

But that didn’t stop people from talking about them. One wily salesman is even said to have tried to sell a set of needles to Galileo Galilei, the Italian astronomer and physicist. A firm and early believer in experimental evidence and direct observation, Galileo demanded a demonstration of the needles on the spot. The salesman refused, claiming that they worked only over very great distances. Galileo laughed him out of town.

Yet the talk of magic needles continued, along with the research into the properties of electricity. But no progress toward a practical signaling device was made until 1790. When the breakthrough finally came, it didn’t involve needles or lodestones or electric wires; in fact, it was surprising that nobody had thought of it sooner.

CLOCKS AND COOKING PANS hardly seem the stuff of which communications revolutions are made. But that was what Claude Chappe ended up using for his first working signaling system.

Chappe was one of many researchers who had tried and failed to harness electricity for the purpose of sending messages from one place to another. Born into a well-to-do French family, he planned on a career as a member of the clergy but was derailed by the French Revolution in 1789. He took up scientific research instead, concentrating on physics and, in particular, the problems associated with building an electrical signaling system. Having made no more progress than anyone else, he decided to try a simpler approach. Before long he had figured out a way to send messages using the deafening ‘‘clang’’ made by striking a casserole

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What people think about The Victorian Internet

195 ratings / 19 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    I listened to this book in audio format and loved hearing about the invention of the telegraph, the Victorian Internet, and its impact on society.
  • (4/5)
    The Victorian Internet was published in 1998 at the height of the Internet's new popularity. At the time I thought an analogy with telegraphy seemed like a cheap gimmick and so I didn't read it - anyway I was too busy working at an Internet company. Now many editions later, including an introduction by the father of the Internet Vince Cerf, I discovered it's real strength is not to dwell on telegraphy versus the Internet, rather to use the context of the Internet as a gateway for understanding telegraphy. It allows for understanding an aspect of the Industrial Revolution from about 1840 to 1870 in a personal way because it was so similar to the Internet revolution of our own time. Standage doesn't tell us they are similar, he doesn't need to. Although the technologies are different, the cultural impacts are nearly identical, people don't change. Indeed the telegraph probably had a more profound change on culture in the 19th century then the Internet in the 21st (although the Internet story is not over). This is fun, well written and interesting narrative history. It is also a lesson how disruptive technology can be, yet also how fleeting and soon forgotten. Telegraphy was a central part of everyone's life but with the telephone it was gone (though not overnight). How long will the Internet last? The telegraph was dominate for about 40 years. The Internet has been a part of mass culture since about 1992 (invention of the web browser and deregulation of the backbone for commercial use) or only about 20 years.
  • (5/5)
    I was surprised at how fascinating I found this book, the story of the first global communications network. Today's internet closely parallels the growth of the telegraph, at least as it was in Europe, where tariffs were kept low, so it was used much more by the general public than. In the US, higher rates kept it more for business use. The public understanding was sometimes amusing. Some thought the wires were hollow and messages were sucked through them. "It's just tubes!" Sound familiar? Attempts at regulation and the forbidding of code usage all eventually failed.

    Quick read
  • (4/5)
    In the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians didn't have the telephone, the TV, the radio or the iPod. But they did have an internet. The Victorian Internet is the fascinating story of the development, growth, and decline of the telegraph, and how it parallels the development of the internet in the 20th and 21st centuries in many ways. If you think socializing online is new, think again. Those bewhiskered and corseted Victorians were already at it in the 1860s!
  • (4/5)
    A well-explained and coherent account of an unsuspected community of practice, and another welcome rehabilitation of the energy, dynamism and inventiveness of the Victorian era from the assumptions of it as an era of stifling, dour conformity. The story of the telegraph's viral spread and impact is a rebuke to our own culture for assuming itself so uniquely innovative and changing.
  • (5/5)
    A wonderfully written popular history of the telegraph. The approach is "in light of the internet" rather than hitting you over the head with comparisons to the internet. Very well done.
  • (5/5)
    Dinged a half a star only because I think the author is being too conservative when he compares the effect of the telegraph on the 19th century to the impact of the Internet today. In my mind, the telegraph was even more disruptive in its day than the Internet has been.Think about it - the Internet debuted in an age when we already had telephones, radio, TV, and many other tools of instant mass communication. When the telegraph came into use, it was new, and all by itself. Suddenly information was instantaneous. It was a hugely disruptive technology.Tom Standage does a great job of laying out the history of the telegraph's development and implementation, and exploring just how disruptive it was. (Did you know that people even got married over the telegraph?)An excellent book, and well worth reading.By the way, my father and grandfather were both railroad telegraphers, and card-carrying members of the ORT (Order of Railroad Telegraphers). Today I proudly own and display my father's telegraph 'bug'.
  • (4/5)
    The Victorian Internet tells the story of the telegraph. When the telegraph was invented and popularized it opened up the world to such an extent that its influence was comparable to the internet, changing the way information is received and distributed, the way business and governments operated, and even the way individuals carried on relations. It was a new kind of communication and, at least for its operators, it allowed the kind of open conversing that appears in chat rooms, in which every individual can speak up in democratic manner. Operators even found themselves naming people across the country, whom they've never met, as closer friends than the living breathing people in their lives (sounds familiar). This book was a fun, quick read that made me reassess my assumptions about telegraphic communication.
  • (5/5)
    One of my favorite books. Draws some very interesting parallels between the development of the Internet in the late20th and early 21st centuries and the development of the telegraph in the mid-19th century.
  • (4/5)
    A fun little book. He draws some cute parallels between the Internet and 19th Century telegraph-geek culture; I'd have loved to hear more about the latter. In fact, a novel about the telegraph geeks would be a hoot.
  • (5/5)
    I finished this little book in three days. An intriguing look at the history of the telegraph, from it's beginnings in Europe until it's ultimate demise at the arrival of the teletype. The author also draws comparisons with the telegraph and the internet, with it's changes in how people communicate, it's sub-cultures and it's hackers and crackers. Nothing new in the world.
  • (2/5)
    So, this is a fairly dull and easy to read history of the telegraph. The earlier chapters are certainly the most interesting, but it very much glosses over electric theory of the time, and how inventors found out more about electricity.

    This was heading to a solid 3 stars. And then I got to the last chapter--The Legacy of the Telegraph. He tries to force the "Victorian Internet" a little too hard. Sure codes were used on the telegraph and on the internet. But weren't they used by homing pigeon as well? The telegraph was not the beginning of industrialization or long-distance or wartime communication, and that gets shoved to back burner by the time the last chapter rolls around. He was doing just fine up to that point.

  • (4/5)
    The most effective way to demonstrate a parallelism is to describe the unfamiliar in such a way that its similarity to the familiar is obvious. Standage's short but effective history of the telegraph's initial period of rapid growth resonates with today's reader. Only in his concluding two-page epilogue does he feel the need to explicitly draw a parallel between the telegraph and the Internet. Outside of the current fascination with the Internet economy, this is still a fascinating and thought-provoking book. The quantum change in human communication capabilities was the first utilization of electricity and wire--everything since then has been a refinement. Learning that a young Tom Edison lived on huge amounts of weak coffee and apple pie, its easy for the reader to envision him as an early hacker, endangering his health with the 19th century equivalent of Jolt Cola and Twinkies. This book is equally enjoyable to anyone who enjoys the history of technology, and those who have a more specific interest in the Internet and want to learn what lessons a historical high-tech boom can offer. A quick & enjoyable read. I accept the author's contention that 1) the Internet today parallels the 19th c. telegraph network, 2) the telegraph represented a significantly more dramatic change.
  • (3/5)
    Finished reading this on July 6, 2006.I read this to get some background in the history of telegraph technology and it served well in that role. It is very much a popular history insofar as there is a heavy biographical focus on some of the inventors involved (Morse etc). Seeing as I read it as a background reading for a historical project, I found it lacking that regard. There are no footnotes for the any of the primary sources Standage uses, which is quite frustrating.A small flaw which will become more glaring as time passes is Standage's effort, at times blatant, to draw parallels between the Internet and 19th century's telegraph network. At times, this works (e.g. the sub culture of telegraph operators and today's computer nerds) but it does not always work so well.
  • (4/5)
    I expected the title to be hype but was pleasantly surprised by this book. The first online dating, marriage all took place over the telegraph. First online crime took place over the telegraph. When it was first built it was expected to usher in a lasting world peace as governments could instantly communicate with each other. This book is well worth the time to read.
  • (4/5)
    This is an entertaining history of the telegraph, and comparison of its social impact to that of the rise of the Internet.
  • (5/5)
    An excellent, informative, & readable romp through the development and rise of the telegraph and its impact on various aspects of life in America, Britain, and Europe.
  • (4/5)
    A nice little nugget of popular history, that covers an underappreciated epoch in the making of the modern world. The telegraph was probably on of the first technologies to fulfill Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum of being indistinguishable from magic, and the effect it had on the society that developed it, compared adroitly to the similar effect of the internet in our era, makes for a fascinating read.
  • (4/5)
    While the term ‘Victorian Internet’ conjures up visions of a steampunk alternate history, the invention and spread of the telegraph system in the 19th century had much the same effect on society then as the internet has had in our own time. It turned a world where messages took weeks to cross the Atlantic to one where it took mere minutes. It changed the speed of business and of war. New forms of crime sprang up to take advantage of the new technology and encryption was developed to deal with this. A new class of people sprang up- the telegraph operators, the only people who knew the knack of sending and receiving messages. They could go anywhere and be assured of a job. Suddenly, anyone who could afford the price of the telegram could talk to people across the globe. The telegraph system was hyped by some as the technology that would bring world peace- after all, if you could talk to someone instantly, you wouldn’t want to make war on them, would you? Sadly, that last wasn’t true. And the telegraph operators soon found their economic boom over and them selves obsolete as a new, voice over protocol was invented- the telephone. But the world was permanently changed by the technology that, for a lot of purposes, made distance immaterial. Standage tells us not just about the invention of the technology of the telegraph system, but about the personalities of the people who created it, and the consequences that it had in business, government, romance (yes, love did bloom across the wires) and newspapers. He gives a complete picture but keeps it light. And interesting read about a part of history that changed the world as much as the printing press did before it and the internet after it. A quick read for non-fiction.